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Affliction: African Cults of Affliction


An important feature of African religions, both historically and in the twenty-first century, has been the interpretation of adversity within the framework of cults, or specialized therapeutic communities. Although cults concerned with affliction and healing are widespread on the continent, the technical term cults of affliction has been used in scholarship specifically to describe the healing cults found among the Bantu-speaking peoples of central and southern Africa. The two major criteria of such cults are spirit possession and the initiation of the afflicted person into the cult. These cults have also been called "drums of affliction" because of the significance in their rituals of drums and rhythmic song dancing, both termed ngoma ("drum"), over a wide area. Also important in this context is the elongated ngoma -type single-membrane drum, which plays a central role in rituals throughout the region. The importance of the drum to these cults can be related to the fact that the drumming is considered to be the voice or influence of the ancestral shades and other spirits who possess the sufferer and also provide treatment.

Societies, History, and Therapeutics

Societies from the equator down to the Drakensberg Mountains and the Kalahari Desert in the south use many of the same terms and concepts to describe their cultural life (particularly in its religious and therapeutic aspects), including terms for sickness, health, and disease etiologies (especially prevalent is the notion that "words" or an ill will may cause sickness and misfortune). Equally common to these societies are various therapeutic techniques and materials, terms for the ancestors, and the concept of ngoma as it relates to song-dance communities and therapies. These shared characteristics occur in spite of much local and regional adaptation to a broad range of climates, widely divergent political and economic formations and colonial experiences during the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, as well as diverse responses to various diseases and stressful environments.

Many of the societies of the subcontinent were lineage-based agrarian communities, practicing some hunting and, in regions where the sleeping-sickness-carrying tsetse fly is absent, livestock tending. Especially in coastal regions, commercial cities have emerged, linking the continent to overseas mercantile centers. The region includes southern savanna matrilineal societies such as the Kongo, Lunda, Chokwe, Kimbundu, and Bemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Zambia, and Malawi; patrilineal societies such as the Luba, Lozi, Nyamwezi, and others of the central region; and in the southern region, the Shona, Sotho, and Tswana and the nearby Nguni-speaking societies of the Zulu, Swazi, and Xhosa. Numerous precolonial states and empires existed in the subcontinent, including the cluster of states of the Luba, Lunda, Kimbundu, and Chokwe; on the western coast, the Kongo, Loango, Kakongo, and Ngoyo states; the states of the eastern lakes, Kitara, Busoga, Bunyoro, Buganda, and, eastward, Nyamwezi; in the Zimbabwe region, the historic state of Monomotapa; and more recently, in the early nineteenth century, the Zulu empire and the Tswana chiefdoms, and the Sotho kingdom in the southern Africa area, associated with the great disturbances known as the Mfecane.

Cults of affliction have related dynamically to these states, either by having been brought under the tutelage of government and serving to legitimate it as a sovereign power, or by serving to preserve segments of society not directly related to the state. In the absence of the state, cults of affliction have provided a format for the perpetuation of such marginalized or afflicted social groups as women, the handicapped, and those struck with misfortune in economy-related tasks such as hunting. They are also expressly concerned with women's fertility and commerce. In some settings, the model of the cult has provided the basis for normative social authority, the definition and organization of economic activity, social organization, and more esoteric religious and artistic activities.

In colonial and postcolonial Africa, the use of affliction and adversity to organize social reproduction has contributed to the perpetuation (even the proliferation) of cults of affliction, often in a way that has baffled governmental authorities and outside observers. Cults have arisen in connection with epidemics, migration and trade routes, and shifts in modes of production. They have also emerged in response to changes in social organization and the deterioration of institutions of justice. Colonialism itself generated many of the cults of affliction appearing in the twentieth-century literature on the subject.

The cults of affliction have provided African societies with a far more pervasive concept of disease and health than that which has prevailed in the Western world. Before presenting examples of the distribution of cults of affliction in several societies, it is necessary to further describe their underlying common features.

Common Features and Variations

Beneath the diversity of cults of affliction there is a characteristic worldview regarding misfortune and how it can be classified and dealt with. Adversities that are regarded to be in the natural order of things are handled through the use of straightforward, often individual and private remedies, techniques, and interventions. Extraordinary adversities, or those that are attributed to human or spiritual forces, can only be dealt with by placating these forces or by intervening in the spiritual realm. Rather than everyday problems, cults of affliction address this second level of adversity. A hunter's chronic failure to find game, an employee's chronic loss of a job or failure to find one, accidents that occur despite taking every precaution, and misfortune juxtaposed with social conflict are all examples of extraordinary adversities.

The worldview that inspires cults of affliction includes as an axiom the idea that ancestral shades and spirits, ultimately expressions of the power of God, may influence and intervene in human affairs. The shades may either be direct, identifiable lineal ancestors or more generic "human" spirits. Other spirits of the central and southern African pantheon may include more distant nature spirits, hero spirits, or alien spirits that affect human events in varying ways. Old as well as new knowledge tends to be related to the shade and spirit forces, as events are interpreted and adversities dealt with. Thus, as common social problems increasingly occur outside the domestic community, there has been a tendency for lineal ancestors to be supplanted by more generalized spirit forces in cults of affliction.

Therapeutic attention to affliction, through the form of cults, often entails the initiation of the afflicted individual into membership in the cult, ideally resulting in his or her elevation to the status of priest or healer in the group. Whether or not this happens (there are many "dropouts" in cults of affliction) depends on the novice's progress through early stages of therapy and counseling, on his or her economic means, and the extent to which the cult's resources are controlled by an elite (where they are controlled, access is restricted). Throughout the wider cult of affliction region, initiation is marked by two distinct stages: an initial therapeutic neutralization of the affliction, and, if the novice progresses through counseling and further therapy, a second stage, a graduation to the status of fully qualified priest, healer, or professional.

The efficacy of the therapy, regardless of its specific techniques, is partly assured because of the support given by the community of the fellow afflicted, who may or may not be the sufferer's kin. In most instances of prolonged sickness in African societies the diagnosis and decisions relating to the course of therapythe "quest for therapy"are in the hands of a lay managing group made up of kin. In the cases that come into the orbit of cults of affliction, the support community broadens to include the cult members. The quality of support shifts from ad hoc aid from kin to a permanent involvement with a network in the initiate-novice's life, corresponding to the long-term involvement of the individual with the affliction, or as a healer-priest over it.

Some cults of affliction, such as Nkita among the Kongo of the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are situated within lineages. Nkita responds to the unique circumstances and symptoms of lineage segmentation. Appropriately, when a generation of Nkita within a lineage fragment is afflicted, the cult provides the rationale and the setting for the regeneration of the lineage organization, and the members are reaffiliated with the ancestral source of their collective authority. Most cults of affliction, however, occur outside the kin setting. Functioning as a substitute for kin relations, they give the individual lifelong ties with others along the lines of the new affliction- or occupation-specific community. This feature has led some to hypothesize that the cults may proliferate where kin-based social units are in disarray. In the urban setting of South Africa, for example, recruitment to affliction cults is prevalent among those, especially women, who carry the burden of being single-parent household heads.

The cults of affliction are concerned with problems and responses that go well beyond trying to provide an alternative community when kin relations are in disarray. An important function of all the cults is the intellectual, analytical, and diagnostic evaluation of the nature of life and the reasons for misfortune. In this connection, distinction is often drawn between divination, the intellectual analysis of a situation, and ritual therapy, the attempt to intervene in the situation to change it. This distinction accounts for some of the diversity of affliction cult types, for where social change is intense, the need for cognitive clarity increases. Thus, in eighteenth-century coastal Kongo, during the decline of the kingdoms of the area and with the increase of trade, including the slave trade, divination cultsparticularly those related to adjudication and conflict resolutionwere extremely abundant. In southern Africa today, the term ngoma is often identified with divination because of the pressing need for analysis and interpretation of life in a region adversely affected by apartheid. Closer examination, however, shows that the functions of divination and network building are complementary, with both usually present in varying degrees and ways.

Divination, or diagnosis, always accompanies cults of affliction, either independently of the healing role or as a part of the specialized techniques and paraphernalia of a particular cult. Divination must be thought of as a continual querying of the whys, whos, and wherefores begun in the family setting in the face of misfortune, but carried through by specialists with expert judgment and training. These specialists may have had their own profound individual dilemmas or have been recruited to a particular mode of ritual life or been initiated and trained to deal with the spirit world. As a technique, divination may be based on a mechanistic system of signs and interpretations, such as the southern savanna ngombo basket, which is filled with symbolic objects signifying human life, the bone-throwing technique of southern African Nguni society, or the recital of scriptures from the Bible or the Qurʾān. Alternatively, divination involves direct recourse to possession, in which the diviner, as medium, speaks the words of the ancestral shade or spirit in answer to the query. Recent observers suggest that this form of divination is on the increase. Some diviners, however, use a combination of both techniques. In any case, these divined diagnoses, representing a type of analysis or interpretation of daily life, are the basis for the more synthetic, ritualized follow-through of the cults of affliction.

Although they vary tremendously, the rituals of initiation, healing, and celebration have common features throughout the area. Everywhere song and dance are at the heart of the participation of the initiate or celebrant. The ngoma ("song dance") is the product of the initiate's personal pilgrimage, and its lyrics tell of dreams and visions, as well as mundane experiences. These songs, and their rhythms, create a framework of reality within which the affliction or condition is defined and the remedy or mode of relating to it formulated. Thus, despite the collective setting, a great deal of individualized attention is available. The moving, pulsating context of ritual celebration is conducive to cognitive dissociation and restructuring, lending affliction cults a psychotherapeutic, even conversion-like quality, although they are not sectarian or exclusive in membership. The need to define and redefine experience persists throughout the career of the initiate and priest-healer; seasoned elders continue to deal with their own dilemmas and life transitions.

Beyond these core features, the content of affliction cults varies greatly depending on the scope of issues channeled into the format. It may range, as has been seen, from treating epidemic or chronic diseases and deformities to occupational roles that require specialized knowledge or may be dangerous to the individuals yet necessary to society. In one setting the range of issues may be placed into a single ritual format; in others, issue-linked communities may grow into numerous named orders or dances. These communities may in turn be organized as a decentralized series of local cells, or overlapping networks. Alternatively, the prevailing structure may become highly hierarchical, territorially centered on a fixed shrine or central administration. Economic and political factors often play a role in shaping the structure of affliction cults. However, the taxonomy of issues addressed usually depends on the environmental conditions or on the cults' leaders, who often express their visions of solutions to human needs. The parameters of homogeneous and diversified, decentralized and centralized structures in cults of affliction may best be described by sketching several historical and contemporary settings.

Settings and Samples

The cults of affliction reveal the greatest concentration of common features in the area where linguistic homogeneity among Bantu-speaking societies is greatestin a belt across the midcontinent that ranges from Kikongo speakers in the west to Swahili speakers in the east. A brief comparison follows of turn-of-the-twentieth-century accounts of cults of affliction among the coastal Kongo, the Ndembu of Zambia, the Lunda of Zaire, and the Sukuma of the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania, all decentralized societies.

While they were associated with individual affliction in the narrow sense, cults of affliction, or orders, in these societies also related to the sacralization and organization of technical knowledge and its relationship to the legitimation and reinforcement of the social order. Divination played a role, either specific to each cult as among the Sukuma, or as a more specialized set of techniques as among the Ndembu and Kongo, both of whom practiced the ngombo basket technique.

Some cults related explicitly to the prevailing economic activity in each society, largely through the cultic techniques that were preferred and the types of people who became afflicted. Thus, in Ndembu and Sukuma society, hunting was the focus of several ngoma orders, with specific organization centered upon the mode of hunting (whether bow and arrow or gun) and the type of animal (e.g., elephant, snake, porcupine). The Sukuma snake-handling order was, and is, a prime example of a cult devoted to the control and reproduction of technical knowledge. Known for effective snakebite treatments, the snake-dance society members possess antidotes to the numerous poisonous snake venoms of western Tanzania.

In coastal Kongo several cults dealt with trade and commerce, an appropriate focus, for these important economic activities brought divisive mercantile techniques and attitudes into lineage-based societies, as well as several contagious diseases. On the Kongo coast, where formerly centralized kingdoms had featured appeal courts, the cult of affliction format emerged in the eighteenth century as the vehicle for judicial affairs and conflict resolutions. In nineteenth-century Sukumaland, antiwitchcraft medicine cults were introduced from the Kongo Basin in response to the rising social disorder that characterized the early colonial period. The Ndembu responded to early colonialism with cults of affliction focused on new illnesses, including fevers, "wasting," and "disease of the paths," and other suspiciously colonial contagious sicknesses such as malaria, tuberculosis, and venereal diseases brought in by migrant labor. Everywhere, the cults paid much attention to twin and breach births, and other dangerous or unusual conditions of reproduction.

The label "affliction cults," understood in the narrow sense often used in the post-Enlightenment West, does not adequately fit the cults of central Africa. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in the setting of early colonialism, the ngoma groups provided a means of buttressing and celebrating social categories of economic pursuit (land, hunting, trade), social order and justice, and the very fabric of society (marriage, authority, women's health, reproduction), as well as specified areas of sickness in the narrower sense. The celebrative, reflexive dimension of the ngoma needs to be emphasized, as well. In some societies, notably those of East Africa, the ngoma served as a means of entertainment and competition, as sport, a role that is increasingly prominent today. Indeed, in much of East Africa, the distinction is drawn between therapeutic and entertaining types of ngoma. Perhaps the underlying characterization of the historical ngoma orders would be that they ritualized key points of the social and cultural fabric that were highly charged or highly threatened. Affliction or misfortune merely served as a mode of recruitment to leadership and a means of reproducing specialized knowledge.

The picture of cults of affliction within centralized states contrasts markedly with the settings described above. In societies such as the Tswana, where historically there has been a strong chieftainship providing social continuity and material support, cults of affliction are less influential or even entirely absent. Cults are known to have provided the impetus for the emergence of centralized polities, as in the case of the Bunzi shrine of coastal Kongo. They have also emerged in the wake of historical states, picking up the aura of royal authority and the trappings of sovereignty and transforming them into the source of mystical power. A prime example of this was the Cwezi cult of the interlacustrine region of eastern central Africa, which is today a limited cult of affliction whose spirits are the royal dynasties of the ancient Cwezi kingdom of the same region.

This dynamic relationship of cults to centralized polities has been accompanied by changes in the way spirits and shades are focused in consciousness and ritual. As the scale or function of a cult expands, narrowly defined ancestor shades may give way to nature, alien, or hero spirits. In a few instances, centralized shrine cults have persisted over centuries, defining primary values and social patterns for generations of adepts. The Bunzi shrine cult of coastal Kongo, the Mbona of Malawi, and the Korekore and Chikunda in Zimbabwe are examples of well-studied cults that, though centuries old, continue into the present. Some authors have distinguished between these centralized, regional cults and the topically focused cults of affliction. But the orders, taken in their entirety, suggest more of a continuum along several axes: centralized and segmentary, inclusive and specialized, controlled by state sovereignty versus independent, or even opposed to state sovereignty. Cults have crystallized opposition to states in both precolonial and colonial settings and, to a lesser degree, in postcolonial times. Thus, the Cwezi cult channeled opposition to hierarchical structures in a number of interlacustrine states, especially Rwanda. Cult leaders organized opposition to Rhodesian labor-recruitment practices and inspired strikes in the mines in the late nineteenth century. There are other cases of tacit resistance to colonial governments inspired by cult leadership.

Through the twentiety century and into the twenty-first, cults of affliction tended to be short-term movements born out of desperation; trying to provide a panacea for society's ills, they are an expression of the pains experienced by a large segment of the populace because of chronic social problems. There has been a great deal of interpenetration between these cults and independent Christian churches and with Islamic orders in some areas such as East Africa. New permanent cults have arisen around such characteristic ills as the nuclear family or the maintenance of a household in an urban setting; epidemic diseases such as tuberculosis and how to cope with the chronic problems related to it; the divination of problems such as unemployment in a proletarian setting; and how to succeed in business or retain a job. Many cults also focus on the alienation and entrapment so common in the African urban setting.

Affliction cults in central and southern Africa have thus used the classic themes of marginality, adversity, risk, and suffering in order to cope with the ever-necessary task of renewing society in the face of the profound economic and social change that has occurred since the late nineteenth century.

See Also

Central Bantu Religions; Interlacustrine Bantu Religions; Kongo Religion; Mbona; Ndembu Religion.


The hallmark of scholarship on cults of affliction in central and southern Africa remains the work of Victor Turner, who first gave the subject scholarly identification, in The Drums of Affliction: A Study of Religious Processes among the Ndembu of Zambia (Oxford, 1968), and Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975). Studies of possession cults in Africa outside the central and southern regions that have influenced research on ngoma, and offer comparative perspectives, include Ian M. Lewis's Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1971), and Janice Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits (Madison, Wis., 1989), concerning the Zar cult in Islamic Somalia and Sudan respectively; Vincent Crapazano's The Hamadsha: An Essay in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry (Berkeley, Calif., 1973); and Michael Lambek, Human Spirits: A Cultural Account of Trance in Mayotte (Cambridge, 1981).

Noteworthy works that have described examples of cults of affliction in general ethnographies and histories, and have focused on theoretical analysis, include the following: Regional Cults, edited by Richard P. Werbner (New York, 1977), brings together studies on centralized "regional" cults in southern and eastern Africa, including work on Mbona in Malawi by J. Matthew Schoffeleers, on southern Africa's high-god cult by Werbner, on regional and nonregional cults of affliction in Zambia by Wim van Binsbergen, on prophets and local shrines in Zambia by Elizabeth Colson, and on disparate regional cults in Zimbabwe by Kingsley Garbet, as well as a theoretical introduction. John M. Janzen's Lemba, 16501930: A Drum of Affliction in Africa and the New World (New York, 1981), details the emergence of this cult of affliction in the context of the coastal Congo trade and slavery. Terence Ranger's Dance and Society in Eastern Africa, 18901970: The Beni Ngoma (London, 1975), describes the rise of an urban twentieth-century ngoma order. René Devisch, in Weaving the Threads of Life: The Khita Gyn-Eco-Logical Healing Cult among the Yaka (Chicago, 1993), offers a rich ethnography of a widespread Western Bantu fertility cult. Marja Liisa Swantz describes ngoma orders on the Swahili coast in Ritual and Symbol in Transitional Zaramo Society (Uppsala, 1970). John M. Janzen, Ngoma, Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), undertakes a broad comparative perspective of ngoma through regional field studies in Western Equatorial Africa, East Africa, the Nguni south, and the Western Cape, establishing historical connections, common features, regional variations, and theoretical perspectives. The Social Basis of Health and Healing in Africa (Berkeley, Calif., 1992), edited by Steven Feierman and John M. Janzen, includes cases by Gwyn Prins on the Nzila cult of Zambia, by Janzen on Lemba, and by Ellen Corin on Zebola of urban Kinshasa and sangoma networks of southern Africa by Harriet Ngubane. The Quest for Fruition through Ngoma: Political Aspects of Healing in Southern Africa (Oxford, 2000), edited by Rijk van Dijk, Ria Reis, and Marja Spierenburg, reviews and critiques Janzen's 1992 monograph within the context of the contributors' own research on ngoma, including those cases of its Christianization within African independent churches. Henny Blokland on Unyamwezi, Annette Drews on ngoma in eastern Zambia, Ria Reis on the ideology of the wounded healer in Swaziland, Marja Spierenburg on the Mhondoro cult in Zimbabwe, Matthew Schoffeleers on a Malawian story of a scapegoat king in healing, Cor Jonker on ngoma themes in Zionist churches in urban Zambia, Rijk van Dijk on ngoma and born-again fundamentalism in Malawi.

Research on ngoma has seen the emergence of a number of specialized perspectives. On ngoma as protest, Iris Berger's study of the Cwezi cults, Religion and Resistance: East African Kingdoms in the Precolonial Period (Tervuren, Belgium, 1981); Peter Fry, Spirits of Protest: Spirit Mediums and the Articulation of Consensus amongst the Zezuru of S. Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) (Cambridge, U.K., 1976); and Charles Van Onselen's Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 19001933 (London, 1976).

On the importance of putting ngoma into historical perspective: David Schoenbrun, A Green Place, A Good Place: A Social History of the Great Lakes Region, Earliest Times to the 15th Century (Portsmouth, Maine, 1998), situates ngoma and related healing in deep historical context provided by historical linguistics. Boris Wastiau's Mahamba: The Transforming Arts of Spirit Possession among the Luvale-Speaking People of the Upper Zambezi (Fribourg, 2000), shows the constant evolution and emergence of "paradigms of healing" and the relationship of cults of affliction to states, epidemics, and broad-ranging societal changes such as long-distance trade.

Tapio Nisula, in Everyday Spirits and Medical Interventions: Ethnographic and Historical Notes on Therapeutic Conventions in Zanzibar Town (Helsinki, 1999), situates ngoma in relation to the postcolonial state.

Musical scholarship on ngoma Lyn Schumaker on the Nzila cult of Zambia, and by Steven Freidson on Tumbuka cult of Malawi, and by John Janzen on ngoma in South Africaand compared to musical healing in non-African settings, may be found in Penelope Gouk's edited volume Musical Healing in Cultural Contexts (Aldershot, U.K., 2000). Freidson's Dancing Prophets: Musical Experience in Tumbuka Healing (Chicago and London, 1996), and John Blacking's chapter "Movement, Dance, Music, and the Venda Girls' Initiation Cycle" in Paul Spencer, ed., Society and the Dance (Cambridge, U.K., 1985) offers a picture of ngoma in a typology of Venda music.

Spirituality and by scholars become priests and healers: Roy Willis, Some Spirits Heal, Others Only Dance: A Journey into Human Selfhood in an African Village (Oxford, 1999), on the Ngulu cult of northern Zambia, Wim Van Binsbergen, 1991, "Becoming a Sangoma: Religious Anthropological Field-work in Francistown, Botswana," Journal of Religion in Africa, 21, no. 4, pp. 309344.

Finally, recent wars have brought out the significance of ngoma in the relationship of war's victims and their survivors to the perpetrators, the articulation of memory and the recovery of society from war trauma. Richard Werbner, Tears of the Dead (Washington, D.C., 1991) illustrates this in Kalanga communities in society following the war of independence and the civil war in Southern Zimbabwe.

John M. Janzen (1987 and 2005)

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